Nordic countries should take leadership to ensure a socially just green transition

The Finnish City of Lahti has gone from having the most polluted lake in the entire Nordic Region to becoming the European Green Capital 2021. Lahti’s Mayor, Pekka Timonen, says that ambitious targets and a culture of action have been critical to the city’s success. The second Nordregio Forum 2021 was about Nordic leadership in the green transition, focusing on the social impacts of this massive societal shift on people and places.

Equitable transition for vulnerable groups

Secretary-General of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Paula Lehtomäki, opened the event with an optimistic message from the COP26 in Glasgow. Compared to ten years ago, she said, the world’s nations have tightened their commitments and now recognise the urgent need for action. The next decade, often referred to as the decade of action, will be decisive.

“We’re on the threshold of a thorough green transition of our societies, a road we need to take both at home and globally,” Lähtomaki said in her welcome speech. “It will bring about profound changes in many areas of life and calls for changes at a systemic level.”

In line with the Nordic vision of becoming the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030, Nordregio has launched three projects on the impact of the green transition on vulnerable groups in society. These include unemployed people or whose jobs are at risk due to the green shift, but also other groups, such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

“It’s essential to understand how the transition impacts different groups, economically and socially, as well as the spatial implications and differences between urban and rural regions,” says Anna Lundgren, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio. She is Project Manager of Not just a green transition – Examining the path towards a socially green transition in the Nordic Region. “Moreover, when we address the question of a just and equal green transition, we’re often talking about future generations and impacts outside the Nordic countries.”

Impressive shift to sustainability in Lahti

The lake mentioned at the beginning of the article is Lake Vesijärvi, which only 30 years ago was the most polluted in Finland. Today, with its clean water and great recreational value for Lahti’s inhabitants, it perfectly symbolises the city’s transition to becoming the European Green Capital 2021.

“Lahti is the fourth Nordic city to earn this honour, and with our 120,000 inhabitants, we’re the smallest European Green Capital in history,” says Pekka Timonen, Mayor of Lahti. The city was evaluated on twelve environmental indicators and then selected from the 60 European cities competing for the title. “Our path is no different from other cities; we’ve just been able to move faster. What we’ve done in Lahti is something that all cities must do, and what we’ve done is still not enough.”

Looking at Lahti’s starting point, this story of change becomes even more impressive.

“At the beginning of the 1990’s we were a collapsed industrial city with an unemployment rate of almost 30 per cent,” says Timonen. Already in 2009, the city adopted its ambitious climate programme. “Today, we’ve cut 70 per cent of our CO2 emissions. We’ve closed the only power plant using coal and thus said goodbye to fossil fuels in our energy systems. In 2007, 55 per cent of our municipal waste went into landfills, whereas today, 99 per cent of the waste is reused or recycled. It’s quite simple – if you start early, you’ll get far.”

Lahti has set a target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2025, ten years before Finland’s ambitious deadline and long before the EU. According to Timonen, the environmental and climate ambitions have positively affected the city’s businesses.

“Being an advanced environmental city and providing a carbon-neutral business environment provides a competitive edge. In fact, our businesses are now changing and evolving much faster than the political debate. That’s an important point to make; having ambitious environmental goals is also a good strategy for economic development.”

Effective climate policies with regional impact

The next keynote speaker was Johan Kuyelenstierna, Chair of the Swedish Climate Policy Council. He also acknowledges that actors from outside the political sphere are becoming more and more important for the transition toward a carbon-neutral society.

“l would argue that the COP26 in Glasgow was in many ways successful. Interestingly, we see the leadership of so many other actors: businesses in the private sector, but also cities and regions. Which is essential.”

Kuylenstierna is in no doubt that Nordic countries should take on a leadership role to ensure that the green transition will be socially just and based on the best available science and technology. He mentions Sweden’s ambition to become the first fossil-free welfare country, which is essential.

“The world is still struggling to get out of fossil fuels and doing it fairly,” he says. “We must ensure that the climate agenda does not just become a question of eliminating fossil fuels. It should be an agenda of development for a better future for generations to come, and here, Nordic leadership is essential. We have a strong tradition of being able to manage environmental resources and socio-economic development.”

From a regional perspective, Kuylenstierna emphasises the importance of having a clear vision and a storyline about the green transition.

“As in the case of Lahti, being able to tell a story of positive change is an important part of policymaking,” says Kuylenstierna. “That entails being clear about what we want to achieve, what the future will look like, and the aspirations of governments, regions, local communities, and businesses. The green economy is based on innovation; it creates jobs and ensures competitiveness. But it won’t happen automatically. It requires effective policymaking that ensures fairness between urban and rural regions.”

The Nordic Tour

During the panel debate and the event’s Nordic tour, participants heard about Finland’s ambitious goal of achieving carbon-neutrality by 2035 from Anna Leena Seppälä, Head of Unit at the Ministry of Environment. She introduced some of the priorities of the Finnish Government, including a reform of the climate change act and the land-use and building act. Also, Finland has a strong focus on resource efficiency and the circular economy.

In Iceland, all regional authorities, government institutions and companies owned by the state must have a climate policy by the end of this year. However, according to Stefán Gíslason, founder of Environice, these plans only include emissions from the local authorities’ activities and thus only cover a small portion of the emissions taking place on the regional level. Gíslason introduced ongoing efforts to calculate the carbon footprint of the Icelandic regions, which will provide a better basis for their climate plans.

The Nordic tour also featured presentations of the unique municipal collaboration to tackle climate change in Denmark and Norway, delivered by Anna Esbjørn, Project Manager of the DK2020 initiative, and Kjetil Bjørklund, Climate expert at the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities. In Denmark, Concito, Realdania and KL – Local Government Denmark have succeeded in joining almost all Danish municipalities in designing and implementing local climate action plans.

Read more in the article: Unique municipal collaboration accelerates climate action

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